Remembrance of Things Past

Mostly about growing up the 1950s in Ilford, Essex.

[28] ‘Clever People and Grocers, they Weigh Everything’


In my deliberately random ordering, this post takes up the ‘story’ where [24] ‘Hallowed be Thy Name’ left off. We are continuing to look at the basic small shops, to be found everywhere, including my little local shopping area of Beehive Lane. There’s a heavy hint in the title:  – today it’s all about the Grocers shop! More shops will come later.

I should have emphasized in the earlier post about shops that nothing was self-service. You queued at the counter and asked for what you wanted, which may have been (or may not have been) visible behind the shop assistant. Sometimes you asked without knowing whether they had what you wanted. If there was a choice, then you might choose before you had a chance to see it.

This will be more relevant when we come to other shops. So far we have considered, the butchers bakers and greengrocers, where most goods would have been on display. At the combined newsagent, stationers, tobacconist and confectioners, only a selection would be visible. At the grocers, a selection would be visible (behind the counter) for you to choose.

This post is in danger of looking like a list of foods, but as you read it, notice the simplicity of the items; the lack of choice; and what it missed out. Imagine going round your supermarket and only seeing these things. I will come back later to consider some significant omissions.

[I know there will be mistakes and omissions.  Some self-service was creeping into our shops in the fifties, but not where I lived. Please read the spirit of what I say, not the detail]


Dry Goods

Grocers were general food shops, but excluded those perishable goods that we have already met. They did not sell meat, bread, or fresh fruit and vegetables. We certainly did not have ‘sell by’ or ‘best before’ dates, but these were foods that had to be sold when they were fresh. (OK, I missed out the Fishmonger earlier, the fish equivalent of the butcher, only fresh fish. Grocers did not sell fresh fish either.)

To start with, think of dry goods, and things that a supermarket will call basic ingredients, the sort of thing that can come in paper bags or cardboard boxes – sugar, flour, salt, dried fruit (raisins, currants, sultanas), desiccated coconut, rice and pasta (probably just spaghetti or macaroni). Add some old basic ingredients you may never have heard of – cornflour, arrowroot.

We also had herbs and spices, a much smaller selection than nowadays – and herbs were dried herbs only. Some special treats like dried figs and dates would only appear at Christmas.

I want to say tea and coffee but forget coffee! There was tea – we had Typhoo – there may have been other brands. I suspect that you may have been able to buy roasted coffee beans, but I’m not sure. (We did not drink coffee in England. That was what Americans did.)

The nearest approximations to instant coffee were the original Nescafe, then just an unimpressive powder; and bottled Camp Coffee – a thick brown substance described by Wikipedia as 4% caffeine free coffee essence and 26% chicory essence (the rest mostly sugar). Neither of these tasted anything like what we now call coffee.

(After the difficulties of supply during the war, my mother used to buy an extra packet of tea each week out of her housekeeping allowance to save up for emergencies. We had a sideboard full of tea.)

Other dried things in packets – well you could get dried soup mixes, gravy powder (Oxo and Bisto, no choice of varieties for each,) mustard powder. Breakfast cereals – you had corn flakes, Shredded Wheat, Weetabix, maybe two or three others.


Many basic types of biscuits have survived the test of time. Biscuits then would have been seen as a luxury item, but you could buy: plain tea and Nice biscuits; bourbon and custard creams; ginger nuts; plain and chocolate digestives; shortbread, fig rolls and garibaldi. That was about it.

You could buy biscuits wrapped in packets, much as now, but you could also buy them loose.

Plain Ryvita was the only crispbread. There were Jacobs crackers and (table) water biscuits.

Dairy Products

My memories of dairy products are unclear. Milk was delivery daily to our doorstep and the milkman would deliver some dairy products if we ordered them in advance – eggs and cream. But I think that dairy products in general were also available at the grocers. In what follows, we assume that all dairy products came from grocers, so our lists continues.

Milk, in pint bottle only, was just milk. (Jersey milk was extra high fat.) Cream was single cream or double cream. Eggs, stamped with a lion symbol, came in four sizes – small, standard, medium and large. (Maybe standard was larger than medium. The names do not help!) Butter was lightly salted or unsalted (maybe two different brands) and margarine was Stork margarine. You could also buy lard. There was no crème fraiche or fromage frais, no pouring cream or whipping cream, no squirty cream, no spreadable butter, no low calorie versions no cream substitutes, and no yoghurts of any type.

Cheese was Cheddar, or a few other similar types, perhaps with mild and strong varieties. (The only foreign cheeses were Edam and Gouda.) It was cut to order from a large slab and weighed.

[I cannot be precise about either Kraft cheese slices or Dairylea triangles in a circular box. They might have been around that early. There were certainly no other pre-packed cheeses available in the fifties.]

Meat Products

You could buy ham at the grocer, which would be sliced for you and weighed. I think they had those lethal looking slicing machines. It was not available pre-packed.

You could also buy bacon – back or streaky, smoked or unsmoked, with or without rind – probably unpacked in the early days.

[If you were wondering about food hygiene certification, we didn’t have it. Assistants must have washed their hands occasionally but they did not wear those thin polythene gloves. Food was touched constantly. Most of us survived without getting food poisoning.]

The biggest difference in foods available to us now is that prepared and preserved foods were very limited, but there were some, sold at the grocers.

Preserved Foods in Jars

We had some of the basic foods now available in bottles and jars: – jam and marmalade; tomato sauce and HP sauce; Marmite and Bovril; lemon curd, peanut butter, honey, treacle (and syrup in tins). I am not sure about olive oil, but any other vegetable oils were unlikely.

Those tiny bottles of fish paste were much as today – salmon and shrimp, sardine and tomato etc.


Tinned Foods

There were tinned foods, but tins were different – opened by a complex two-handed device, which slowly cut round the top. Heinz was the main brand, (possibly the only one,) already producing many more things in tins than were implied by its advertising slogan: ’57 varieties.’ The main products in tins that I was aware of were vegetables (baked beans and peas), fruit (mandarin segments and pineapple chunks) and soups. To our family, baked beans were an everyday item, tinned fruit went into an occasional fruit salad on Sundays, and we never made used of the others.


Fray Bentos corned beef came in a tin that was difficult to open. It used a key that gradually tore and unwrapped a strip all round the tin. Tins of sardines came in another design of tin, with their own, difficult mechanism to open, somewhat similar to the corned beef device. (Opening tins was a more dangerous process then, with the risk of cuts from the sharp metal edges.)


Frozen Foods

When we were young, (before about 1955,) our household did not even have a refrigerator. Mum used to say that there was no space in the kitchen. The early versions just had a small compartment for ice and frozen food. At first, the only frozen foods available were ice-cream and frozen peas. (Fish fingers were next.) We did not often have either. (You will notice a general trend with new things being relatively expensive, treated as luxuries.)

Cleaning products

There were very few cleaning products at all – soap (I remember Wright’s Coal tar); maybe half a dozen washing powders; washing up liquid; scouring powders (Ajax and Vim); Brillo pads and furniture polish. There was nothing else that we ever used at home. You could get these products at grocers, so they had the overall feel of (very) primitive supermarkets – not just food.

There was some duplication in where you could buy things. Perhaps cleaning materials came from the grocers or the hardware shop. You might get chocolate from a grocer or a newsagent. You could buy a tin of peas at the grocers or at greengrocers; perhaps bacon at the butchers or grocers. But most products came from just one type of shop. You would certainly never see fresh meat, unsliced bread or vegetables in the grocer.


[I cannot check pictures like this one found on the web, for historical relevance. Many of them show products of the 70s or 80s. This one gives a feel for the sorts of things sold in Grocers – dry goods, cereals, bottled goods and soap powder. There are certainly products included here that I remember coming in as ‘new’ products, so we didn’t have them in the fifties.]

Convenience Foods

I have listed a lot of things we could buy in grocers but don’t be misled into thinking that the Grocer’s shop sold hundreds of different foods, like a modern supermarket. If you take away perishable goods from a supermarket today, you will have thousands of lines of food, (perhaps tens of thousands,) but most of them were not available to us. (Don’t forget what I said about choice in [23] Variety is the Spice of Life.)

There were just a few foods that could be described as convenience foods, but our family did not use them. So I can’t be precise about the full range or whether they were there as early as the fifties. The only things I can think of that were not simple ingredients were: tinned and packet soups: gravy powder (and Oxo cubes) and custard powder; and tinned meat pies.

The first real convenience foods I can remember were Vesta Beef Curries, which came in the early sixties.

Exotic and new foods

When it comes to fruit, vegetables and groceries, you have to remember that we have many basic ingredients that either did not exist or were exotic by British standards. Very few foreign foods were cheap enough to be shipped here. (The idea of flying in perishable goods was too expensive to consider.)

Long before the EU, we had a special relationship with Commonwealth countries (formerly the British Empire). So we had sugar from the Caribbean, and Canterbury lamb from New Zealand.


So far you may be thinking that our modern supermarket combines the old grocer with the butcher, the baker, and the newsagent, stationer, confectioner and tobacconist. Think on! We have not seen them all yet, but it also includes the hardware shop, the chemist, pet shops (for pet food), and off licences (for alcohol).

It may also include: dry cleaners, men and women’s clothes shops, shoe shops, and of course a café and petrol station! (Plus things we didn’t have then, like CDs and electronic games.)

We survived then without pot noodles, pre-packed and cleaned vegetables, yoghurts, smoothies, kiwi fruits, breakfast cereal bars, fresh soups, mixed vegetables, casserole and pasta sauces, flavoured crisps, fresh herbs, frozen Yorkshire puddings, pizza bases, Viennetta, pre-packed sandwiches and lots more.

We have lived through the transition of shops into modern supermarkets. One of the early examples was MacFisheries. Originally, they sold fish only but they suffered in the late fifties from the introduction of Birds Eye frozen fish fingers [US: fish sticks]. They widened the scope of their sales, selling fish and groceries, and were probably one of the first real supermarkets. Mac Fisheries eventually became Unilever, one of Britain’s largest and most successful firms, but their supermarkets faded away.

More successful were Sainsburys. There was quite a large Sainsbury’s at Gant’s Hill, a little bit further away than Beehive Lane, serving just groceries in those days. As you went into the shop there were counters to the left and right, each with three or four assistants behind them. If you wanted cheese, you queued up and the assistant cut your selected cheese to order and weighed it. If you then wanted ham, you went to the back of the ham queue. You could work your way round each of the assistants like this! Sainsburys did change with the times, becoming one our biggest supermarket chains now.

Zorba the Greek

Clever People and Grocers, they Weigh Everything’ comes from the film, ‘Zorba the Greek.’

It was probably true that grocers weighed everything not too many years before the fifties. I am sure that my grandmother bought things like flour, tea and raisins by having them weighed. Even the milk would have come from a churn. So, we were becoming more advanced by the fifties! Grocers weighed some things, but most of their produce was at least already weighed and boxed!

I knew that this would be the biggest post so far but it would be silly to split the poor grocer in two. I still have some more shops to consider …


Author: Alan

Retired, currently living in Cheltenham.

10 thoughts on “[28] ‘Clever People and Grocers, they Weigh Everything’

  1. wonderful made me cry (I was born in 1942) I always wanted to work in Sainsburys at Gants Hill, patting butter and cutting cheese with a wire x


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  5. Lovely post – but I would hate to go back to the fifties which I remember as being restrictive and hypocritical in many ways


  6. Oh by the way, you forgot to mention those even more lethal tin openers that had a sharp curved point at one end ( usually a bottle opener concealed within the handle) and which you stabbed the tin to make a hole, and then see sawed round and round to remove the lid, leaving a cruel jagged edge. My granny always used one of those !


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